Desmond Bagley was once an extremely well known author thanks to his incredible skill at creating intricately plotted, realistic and distinctive thrillers by the dozen. However today he is coming dangerously close to being forgotten. This is a real shame because many his books are the equal of the Bond series or any of Forsyth’s thrillers. In style I feel Bagley’s books fall somewhere directly between the two writers I’ve mentioned. They possess that almost textbook style level of accuracy in the methods employed by the characters that are so well demonstrated in Day of the Jackal with a skill at creating interesting characters that is not unlike that possessed by Fleming.
For me, having read three or four Bagley’s in recent months High Citadel still stands out as this fine writer’s greatest achievement. In High Citadel Bagley expertly mixes a colourful caste of believable characters and his flair for a high level of detail and accuracy. Bagley manages to present a fairly unlikely story (it is fiction after all) but in such a realistic way with well researched background features that make the whole storyline seem plausible. It is always my belief that the best escapist fiction is far enough from reality to offer an escape while being realistic enough that you can imagine it happening.
The plot is a fairly simple one at least at the outset. A small group of civilians crash in the Andes and must fight off a group of Communist soldiers intent upon killing them. While one half of the group set off to escape over a chain of fearsome mountains while the rest of the survivors attempt to hold off the soldiers using ingenious inventions. The plot itself is the real masterstroke because it combines that fascinating improvisation of weapons, giving Bagley a great chance to demonstrate his full skill at the procedural novel style writing, with the gripping mountain scenes which read very much like the real mountaineering stories found in books such as Killing Dragons and 127 hours.
Bagley really gave himself the opportunity to let his full writing skill show with such an inventive plot. Reading his other books like the Freedom Trap you realise that when the settings are less exotic and there are less unusual background details to include it’s much harder for Bagley to really be on the top form he is in High Citadel. I think High Citadel is such a good idea for a story that an adequate writer could have quite possibly written a decent book using the plot but Bagley really adds an almost gritty edge of fantastic realism to the book,
Desmond Bagley, a master of gripping realism
An interesting feature I noticed was that there is virtually no characterisation of the communist villains. They are a faceless horde of enemies, more a threatening presence than real antagonists. This certainly makes them seem almost inhuman. This was a book written by a man whose politics could be considered… questionable. As with an awful lot of this era’s thriller writers Bagley definitely tended towards the right wing, although his political views do not influence the plot heavily as with some authors (Frederick Forsyth I’m looking at you!). Of course it was also produced at a time when the “red menace” was a genuine concern to the Western World. Really this is the biggest criticism I can level at High Citadel; the villains are virtually non-realised. This is a shame because it is constantly shown in any number of thrillers that well written multi-dimensional villains always improve a book.
This has less effect than you would think and all in all High Citadel is an expertly written, exciting and distinctive thriller with an edge of realism and for my money Bagley’s best book. This excellent, highly recommended thriller has recently been republished in a very nice new edition by house of Stratus and is available through Amazon at the following link or many other book sellers:
Thanks for reading. As always feel free to comment with constructive criticism and if you enjoyed this article it would be great if you gave it a much needed like. I’ll post again before the new year with news of any Christmas acquisitions. I’d like to wish you all a very merry Christmas with food, family and presents aplenty.
This is Frontline Armchair signing off.